Since the occupation of Tiananmen Square (Gate of Heavenly Peace) by Communist Party of China(CPC), post-Chinese Civil War, in 1949, the single political party ruled country has adopted territorial expansionism -based on vaporous historical evidences- as major components of her foreign policy. CPC during early phase of its rule had been successful in expanding her territory northward, westward and south-westward with brutal capture of Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet. In so far as China’s Tibet occupation is concerned, it will be incomplete without mention of then Indian ruler’s visionless foreign policy which in fact facilitated belligerent Dragon reaching the country’s porous border.
During middle phase of CPC’s first Paramount Leader and the founder of People’s Republic of China(PRC) Mao Zedong’s rule, People’s Liberation Army(PLA) pounced on the country’s Panchsheel ally India in south of her occupied Tibet in 1962 based on Mao’s manufactured “Palm and Five Fingers” territorial claim and encroached some territories on the sparsely populated Himalayan height. Apart PLA made a daring attempt in 1969 to further expand Chinese territory towards further north to capture collaborator-turn-foe Union of Soviet Socialist Republic(USSR)’s resource rich but thinly populated eastern territories far away from the capital of centrally administered country. But, the war was so furious within a short time of start that PRC top leadership was forced to hide in country’s remote mountain range fearing nuclear strike on Beijing from its manufactured enemy.
In 1979, PRC leadership under Deng Xiaoping, post-first Paramount leader Mao Zedong era of 37 years rule, made an attempt to expand southward saying “The child is getting naughty, it is time he got spanked”. The war PRC fought with fellow communist ruled Vietnam was so shocking that PLA had a humiliating withdrawal.
Post-Vietnam misadventure, China has changed her expansionist strategy from direct confrontation to incremental/salami slice strategy. To support this new strategy, PRC first concentrated in country’s economic development by opening up its markets to outside world abandoning the founder’s dogmatic closed economy with backing of capitalist developed countries under the leadership of America, which were opposed to their dreaded Cold War rival Warsaw Pact group under the leadership of USSR. During early three decades of open market economy, PRC had strictly adhere to Deng Xiaoping famous dictum “Hide your strength, bide your time”.
During the period, the country’s GDP witnessed year-on-year double digit growth on an average, the fastest in the world, and country’s foreign exchange reserve reached $3trillion, the highest among all the countries in the world. By the time, the present belligerent President Xi Jinping, who has adorned himself the Paramount Leader status second to Mao Zedong, took over the country’s leadership, PRC had achieved the second largest economy status in the world with GDP of above $10trillion and almost had reached the status of world super power in manufacturing, so far occupied by the US.
With solid economic backing, PRC added with its existing incremental/salami slice expansion strategy the Debt Diplomacy through China centric Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) following the ancient Silk Road concept. The infrastructure based initiative had early setback when India, then the third largest economy in the PRC’s immediate neighborhoods and having potential to compete with the initiative’s initiator for economic and military supremacy in the region, refused to join the initiative alleging it breaches country’s sovereign territory.
But, Xi Jinping has not been disoriented. In the meanwhile, PRC has almost occupied South China Sea building naval infrastructures in the marginal sea’s coral reefs, building artificial islands and sabre-rattling small littoral countries as and when they venture into the sea for economic activities as per United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas(UNCLOS).
Here, it is to remind that Communist or Totalitarian regimes anywhere in the world have not been comfortable with thriving democratic countries in their neighborhoods. Former fears influence of later on their population’s aspiration with 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising for democracy fresh in the mind.
PRC leadership knows very well that Democratic India, located on the strategic place of the 21st Century world’s most happening region, has the all-round potential to challenge Chinese ambition to achieve world Super Power status when the existing Super Power the US is declining. In view of this, PRC leadership has got India specific strategy of ‘String of Pearls’ embedded with Debt Diplomacy with clear objective to strangulate India through BRI.
Now, China has either already got or has been constructing military-cum-commercial bases in countries around India and her sphere-of-influence in Indian Ocean Region(IOR) investing her high cost and hugely surplus capitals though many of these projects are not financially viable and economically beneficial to host countries.
Here, it looks incomplete without mention of allegations that the host countries’ political leadership, bureaucrats, militaries and civil societies including media houses have been handsomely benefited in allowing BRI projects into their countries. Many allege the same strategy has been applied in India, but the same has limited success here in view of some patriotic forces in politics and civil society.
Now, many of these BRI host countries in the immediate neighborhood of India as elsewhere in the world are in complete debt trap of China. As per latest Bloomberg report quoting IMF, Pakistan’s Chinese debt is $30billions, which is 30% of country’s total debts, and ratio to GDP is 10%. As per Christian Science Monitor, Sri Lanka’s total public and publicly guaranteed debt was $35.8 billion at the end of 2021. Of that amount, lending by China accounted for $7.1 billion, or 20%, compared with less than 1% in 2001.
In the meantime, China has taken over the 99 years lease of its built strategic Hambantota port, located on the world’s one of the trade routes south of India. As per UK think tank Chatham House ‘the partial Chinese ownership of Hambantota port has so far been symbolic. Still, such ownership structures could be used to China’s advantage in the future’. Over Hambantota Port issue too, India’s leadership in 2008 exhibited poor strategic vision by refusing Sri Lankan offer to built-operate-transfer scheme based strategic port.
Now, Sri Lanka is in severe financial crisis. During this period, Chinese, despite being the largest lender, did not come forward to rescue the country, and even has been found reluctant to cooperate the indebted country to get easy loan from IMF to get ride up the present crisis. And to make the situation worst for island nation, PLA Navy sent a naval ship engaged in intelligence collection to Hambantota Port intentionally to create rift between India and Sri Lanka when the former is trying to rescue the later with survival financial doses.
The strategically located tiny archipelago in the south of India on the major trade route of world i.e. Maldives’ former President and present Parliament Speaker Mohamed Nasheed said in December 2019 that his country owed China $3.5 billion in loans. Note: Maldives’s GDP is $5 billion. Nasheed said that the Chinese debt trap was an economic and human-rights issue, and an issue of sovereignty and freedom of the island nation. Nasheed has also said that project costs were inflated, and the debt on paper is far greater than the $1.1 billion actually received.
On 10 August 2022, Bangladesh’s finance minister Mustafa Kamal warned that developing nations must ‘think twice’ about taking more loans through China’s Belt and Road Initiative. He said ‘Beijing’s poor lending decisions’ are pushing already indebted nations into economic distress. Highlighting Sri Lanka’s crisis, Minister Kamal said that China must follow a more robust process for evaluating its loans.
On the same day, The Print reported, “China has been consistently endeavoring to expand its influence in Nepal, analysts said amid fears that China aims to trap the Himalayan nation in a spiral of irrevocable debt without helping Nepal and to use its land. That is why China encourages Nepal to ‘live luxuriously’ with it ‘on loan’.”
Here, it is quite difficult to ignore the fact that the vulnerability of Indian Ocean Region rim countries from east Africa to west ASEAN to Chinese manipulation the type seen in recent past in Sri Lanka, which Chatham House has explicitly recognized, and has been in practice in Pakistan since start of execution of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor(CPEC) has strategic implication on India’s maritime security, energy security, trade security ……. and last but not the least to her territorial security as PRC’s territorial hunger has been since the days of its founder is well-known. Already CPEC project under BRI infringes India’s territorial sovereignty in the northern state of J&K, partly due to earlier government’s visionless foreign policy.
In the given situation, Indian government, opposition leaders, media and civil society need to be very visionary, the kind seen during preparation for 1971 Indo-Pak war. The present government with absolute majority is duly elected one like the government was there in early 1970s. And like that government was trusted by then opposition leaders, media and civil society despite the then Prime Minister’s bold refusal to divulge the details of war preparation in the Parliament floor, the present government deserves the same trust.
At least the party, which is squarely responsible for bringing PLA to the northern (from Ladakh to Arunachal) and southern (Hambantota) door steps of India, should not go for 2008 kind secret MoU with China, should not indulge in secret talk with Chinese Embassy staffs during Doklam standoff and should not abuse country’s arm force leadership using derogatory words because all these acts send wrong signals to enemies and have demoralizing effect on forces guarding the country in the inhospitable terrain.
To successfully face the Dragon belligence, the country needs “whole of nation approach” as expressed by General Manoj Pande soon after taking oath of office.